History at its most exciting

Sometimes you have to go to one place to learn something fascinating about another.

When I was in school, I didn’t enjoy history. It took me years to figure out that some stories of the past are intriguing, even if those tales never seemed to be covered in my history classes. Ancient civilizations, distant lands and forgotten peoples all amazed me with surprises, while everything in school seemed no more than a predictable, boring parade of Western Civilization’s wars, conquests and discoveries.

Later, I would learn that my own culture is also filled with such tales, as marginalized peoples and quiet heroes of all types faced small human dramas that seldom made my history books but, in my opinion, should have. Decades after my last history final, I came to understand that history is these thousands of fascinating stories woven together in the way that got us to where we are now.

IMG_5531My love of poorly understood tales from the past would lead to a fascination with the many advanced cultures in my hemisphere that were demolished by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That lead to a burning desire to visit Machu Picchu, and a few weeks ago I finally got to do so. The whole trip was amazing, and I’ll be posting more about it soon. But this isn’t about that.

While I was in Peru, I got asked what I knew about the massive Maya discovery being made in the Petén region of Guatemala. What??

“Oh yes,” I was told. “It is so big and amazing that soon people will want to visit it instead of Machu Picchu.”

Really? How could I have missed that.

Well, it turns out it never made much of a splash in the U.S. press. Then, I was traveling without my laptop, and trying to use no data on my phone, so my usual sources of news were gone. Instead, I was glancing at newspapers in Spanish as I walked, scanning frantically for pictures of Trump and/or nuclear clouds, in hope of seeing neither. I hadn’t looked for much else.

Once I got back, the story about the great discovery in Guatemala was easy to confirm.

“Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed,” National Geographic  informed me.

The famous Maya site of Tikal is just a fraction of an immense hidden metropolis Credit: Wild Blue Media/Channel 4

“A vast network of lost Maya cities discovered deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala could rewrite the history of the ancient civilisation, experts say. Researchers found more than 60,000 previously unknown structures including pyramids, royal tombs, palaces, roadways and defensive fortifications hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest canopy. Pioneering lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) laser scanning technology was used to map 800 square miles from the air, revealing a “treasure map” of the Maya ruins,”  The Telegraph informed me all the way from the UK.

Most enticing of all  was this report from the London Times.

“The ancient Maya had no metal tools, no wheels, no cattle and no pack animals. They lived in a swamp-ridden and storm-battered region of central America where the landscape seemed resistant to the presence of humans.

Yet, boy, could they build. An aerial survey using lasers to penetrate the vegetation of the Guatemalan jungle has revealed more than 60,000 structures, including pyramids, canals, fortifications and causeways stretching from city to city.

Historians say that the finds point to a society of city states like the world of classical Greece, but with a population of between 8 and 13 million people living in a rainforest the size of Italy.”

Wow.

Back in 2012, I did a deep dive into the Petén region of Guatemala as it was in the late 1600’s, as I created an imaginary Maya woman to design the clever puzzle that my modern day treasure hunters would discover and attempt to understand. As Nimah took shape in my mind, she developed her own clear voice, and soon her two sons did as well. I spent a happy year in their company.

This is how the resulting book, z2, begins:

When the time came, she knew it, just like her father promised her she would. She saw the signs as her rulers became friendly with the strangers, and she listened with fear as they became ever less cautious. Nimah watched with her own horrified eyes as the singers and priests of the others were finally allowed to walk brazenly into her city and she cried as her neighbors welcomed the invaders.

Of course, the strangers’ warmth disappeared quickly when they did not get their way. When Nimah’s king would not convert to the new religion like they had so clearly expected, the strangers responded to the fine hospitality of the Itza by sending soldiers to convert them by force. The Itza fought back valiantly.

“The day on which you must act will not be long after that,” her father had cautioned. So in the months since that attack, Nimah had been actively preparing herself and her two sons for today. At twenty-six, Nimah thought of herself as responsible and mature, one who took her obligations seriously. She had learned well her people’s history and religion, and because her people kept fine records, there was much to know.

She knew that she was part of the Kan Ek, the ancient race whose rulers were descended from the Gods. She knew that once, more generations ago than there were days in a moon cycle, her people had been far more organized. The lands were bigger then, with many more families, and there had been many cities and giant gatherings where customs were shared. There had been much more wealth and, some had said, much more greatness. But Nimah thought not. She had also learned that lives had been more stringently controlled back then and that there had sometimes been cruel penalties for those who failed or wandered astray.

Many people of that time appeared to have believed that the greatness of the Maya would go on forever. Nimah knew, she had studied their texts. But, over hundreds of years, the carefully recorded famines and droughts and wars had brought an endless string of hard times to the seemingly invincible people. Nimah had studied how, over time, her people had been forced to huddle closer together for strength and how the resulting battles for food and water had shrunk her world. Finally, her own people’s realm encompassed only the area around Tayasal itself, the beautiful town built on the remains of the great old city of Noh Peten.

Now her people, those of the majestic Lake Peten Itza, were free to develop their own rules and more flexible ways. Nimah personally thought that they had evolved, that they were now an older race, one filled with more enlightenment and compassion. So Nimah was glad that she had been born when she was, not at the time when her kings ruled over the most amount of land, but at the time when her people themselves had never been better.

Nimah, of course, is fiction, but she left traces of herself in my brain and heart, as most of my characters do. I’m happy to discover that her world was larger, richer and more complicated than I knew, and I look forward to hearing of the many true tales to be discovered near her home. To me, this is history at its most exciting.

It is more than a little ironic that I had to go all the way to Peru to learn about it.

(For more on my trip to Peru see What you don’t know …. has the power to amaze you and woman traveling alone.)

 

 

Point of View

I violate one of the basic rules of storytelling. I do it often, I do it on purpose, and I like doing it.

The rule is to pick a point of view and stick to it, at least for a full chapter. But because the stories I tell myself are never told from a single point of view for very long, how could the stories I tell others ever be? One of my greatest fascinations with a tale is how differently the events appear to various characters. So if you read something I write, be prepared to hear the plot unfold through several sets of eyes.

My latest book is providing me with new challenges in this regard. As the sixth and last book in my 46. Ascending collection, it features a dozen characters with five unusual powers as they learn to work together. I’m having fun changing the point of view, but am also striving to find new ways to do it so that it doesn’t leave my readers’ heads spinning.

My character Alex, who can slow down or speed up time, reacts to save his wife Lola while they are aboard a cruise ship in a storm at sea. I tried this technique for showing how they both experience what happens.

About twelve minutes later, or so it seemed to her, a series of sharp knocks on the cabin door woke all three of them. A pleasant young man brought in a tray of dry snacks, cartons of water, more motion sickness treatments, and extra pillows, cushions and even bungee cords for securing people and things.

“We are in a bit of a lull now,” he cheerfully informed them “and the rain has stopped. The captain says that if you want a spot of air on deck at all today, now would be the time to take it.”

“I’ll pass,” Maurice muttered without moving. “But I will take a look at your pill selection.”

“I could really use the fresh air,” Lola said. She looked at Alex hopefully. He knew how hard it was for her to stay in the enclosed cabin.

“Let’s both go get a breath of it,” he agreed.

After that, their recollections would always be different.

She would remembered wanting to leave the cabin quickly before he changed his mind.

He would remembered wondering why she didn’t stop to put on something besides those stupid cheap slippers she’d bought in Ushuaia.

She would remember hurrying down the hall because she wanted to catch the heavy metal door before it latched completely behind a couple coming back inside.

He would remember being annoyed because he had to speed up to join her as he felt a large gust of wind blow through the open door.

She would remember bounding outside, then looking up and being overwhelmed at the sight of the unusually large wave on the other ship of the ship. She would recall the roar of it, the froth of it, the fear of it as she started to slide backwards with the tilt of the deck.

He would never even see the wave. As he reached the door, he would be looking down, watching her momentum carry her into a slide as she slipped along an improbably tilted deck towards a rail that was clearly inadequate, coming only as high as her thighs for christsakes but sticking out way over the ocean, and what the hell kind of guard rail was that?

She wouldn’t even remember a guard rail, just a second of terror, a realization that she was going over board.

He would see her slow down, way down, almost stopping as she hung there.

She would remember Alex grabbing her arm so fast she thought he’d dislocated her shoulder, then both of them slamming onto the deck and sliding backwards towards the door, with Alex grabbing on to something as the boat made a high-angle lurch the other way and then a few more frightening tilts back and forth.

He would remember time speeding back up as she cried and shivered with the cold and the shock, and thinking that he had almost lost her again.

She would only remember thanking him and telling him that she loved him.

He would remember silently holding her to warm her, and hoping she understood how much he loved her too.

(For more excerpts from my new novel visit Am I sure I’m Sherrie?, Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know, and The Amazing Things I Get to Do.)

On the Road

What is your dream vacation? I’m headed out the door on mine, and it is surprising how few of these I have taken. I’m talking about going somewhere I’ve never been; somewhere far enough off well-traveled roads that no one I know has ever been there. Except for my travel companion, I won’t know a soul. I have no plans for what to do when I get there, and no real expectations for how this will turn out. There is enough time, a whole week, for exploring and relaxing and seeing what will happen.

The truth is that I love out of the way places. I keep tucking them into my books, from the town of Flores on Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala in z2 to the to northeast corner of Greenland in d4. You can’t get too remote for my tastes.

charles-kuraltOn the other hand, my traveling companion, who is usually referred to as my husband, is noticeably agitated about this dive into the uncharted, combined with a notable lack of advanced reconnaissance.  I agree that it adds potential for problems, and I try to think of why such an adventure calls to me in a way that sight seeing and visiting loved ones and going and laying on a beach somewhere simply does not.

And I remember Charles Kuralt.

When I was a kid, we watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. On a good night, the broadcast would include a segment called “On the Road” where this older, balding guy would wander into some town in the middle of nowhere and, always, discover a fascinating story to tell. I loved him, loved his travels and loved his stories. One could say I’ve spent much of my life trying to become Charles Kuralt, and I don’t know why. I even seem to have moved to his home state of North Carolina.

What was the charm? Maybe it was finding something you could not predict. Perhaps it had to do with taking a step back from busy life, and enjoying, for example, the simple pleasure of watching 8000 dominoes fall over.  See for yourself in this video from 1983.

Will I make discoveries like this on my vacation into the unadvertised, non-simulated nooks into which I go? Oh, I hope so. I really hope so.